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The fork in the road

August 1, 2012

The Mavericks are in year 2 of a rebuilding plan based on the theory that they can and will entice a max level free agent to join them via free agency. It’s the Miami Heat blueprint with Dirk Nowitzki (the lone superstar on a team with a lot of salary cap space) replacing Dwyane Wade in Dallas’ scenario. Though the Heat made it work by adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh in free agency 2 years ago and winning the title this past season it’s in my opinion a very flawed strategy as few stars change teams via free agency and because Dallas, in my opinion, isn’t a destination city. That second point is important to understand as whether it’s Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers, Amare Stoudamire to the Knicks, or LeBron and Bosh to the Heat the only teams that have succeeded in stealing another team’s star via free agency were located in prime locations like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. I highly doubt that if a Dwight Howard or Chris Paul hits free agency (no guarantee they even hit as I suspect the star is traded and then extended by the new team before they hit the market) they would target a city like Dallas that lacks the size of New York (New York is 6.5 times more populous than Dallas) the Hollywood appeal of Los Angeles, or the weather, beach, and night scene of Miami. There’s nothing against Dallas but there will always be more attractive options for free agents and to pin all of your hopes on this flawed strategy is a huge gamble that I don’t see paying off. So what strategy do I think Dallas should have had this summer? Well there are two teams that found themselves in a similar position to Dallas and took drastically different paths in their attempt at a ring. I call this the fork in the road as Dallas was in the same position as Houston and Boston yet all three went separate ways and it will be interesting to watch each team the next 2 years to see which strategy is the most successful. If Dallas had followed Houston’s strategy they would have traded, signed, and drafted players solely as assets instead of as players, positions, and needs. Houston traded Kyle Lowry to Toronto for a 1st round pick, traded Chase Buddinger to Minnesota for a 1st round pick, sign and traded Courtney Lee for a 2nd round pick, amnestied a very good player in Luis Scola, and signed two young players in Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in free agency. They added two young players in free agency, added four other young players drafted in the first round to their roster (Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, Terrence Jones, and Donatas Montiejunas) and kept enough salary cap space to sign or trade for a max level player at any time in the next two years. The roster doesn’t really fit that well together as they added three power forwards while having a starting point guard and center with a combined 27 career starts yet it makes perfect sense in their overall strategy of asset accumulation. They understand that a Dwight Howard type won’t voluntarily sign with them so they are accumulating future 1st round picks and young, cheap talent to be ready for a trade whenever the next disgruntled young star demands a trade. It’s an interesting strategy and one that can test the patience of a fan base as the team the Rockets currently have constructed is not playoff caliber but in terms of the likelihood of acquiring a top 10 player the strategy has to be considered superior to the Mavericks. Whether it’s Chris Paul to the Clippers, Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, or Deron Williams to the Nets almost all of the teams the past few years who have acquired a top level talent have done it via trade. In each of those trades the pieces were future 1st round picks and young talent which makes it likely that the Rockets will be the next franchise able to acquire a young All-Star. Yet this fork in the road has three paths and while the Mavs chose one path and the Rockets chose another path, the Celtics decided on a third path: The last shot at glory. Countless teams from the Utah Jazz in the early 2000’s to the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets in the late 90’s have gone this road as it’s easy to sell to fans and maximizes the final few years of an aging superstar. Whether it’s Karl Malone, Reggie Miller, or Hakeem Olajuwon the primary reason these teams loaded up on veterans was to give these once in a generation talents as good a chance to win a title in their final couple of years as possible, future consequences be damned. Under this scenario the Celtics have steadily added aging veterans with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, PJ Brown, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, and Jason Terry being the most high profile examples. When the window slams shut Danny Ainge will be left with either nothing or even worse will be left with overpaid veterans who no longer deserve their salary or their starting spot and possibly won’t have future 1st round picks either due to previous trades. It’s a situation that can get messy very quickly yet until then they will have 1 or 2 more chances at a title, albeit as underdogs. Each of the two strategies has it’s pluses and minuses with the Mavericks seemingly outsmarting everyone by taking this middle path that they’re on which commits them to put the best possible team on the floor each year yet without signing players to multi-year deals so they can stay viable options in free agency each summer. They’ve executed the strategy about as successfully as can be expected pulling Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, and OJ Mayo from the wreckage that was the Deron Williams miss yet at the end of it all I still have to ask if they’re even on the right path. If they did Houston’s strategy they’d trade Shawn Marion for a 1st rounder, sign and trade Kidd or Terry for a 2nd rounder, and take on a bad 1 year contract in exchange for young talent or picks that could increase their firepower next time an All-Star was available via trade. If they did the Celtics strategy they never would have let Tyson Chandler leave last summer and instead of having the cap space to go after Deron Williams they would have made an aggressive pitch for an older, cheaper player like Steve Nash to go on a final run with Chandler, Dirk, Marion, Kidd, and Terry who both would have surely re-signed under this strategy. If the Mavs went the Houston way they’d be worse next year but more likely to snag the big fish they’re going after and if they went the Celtics way they’d be better next year and give 2 more legit years for Dirk to surprise everyone again and win a title. Yet instead they chose the middle path which will keep them in the playoffs and keep the public hoping a star will decide to come to Dallas but eventually will prove to be a losing strategy with Dirk never really in contention for a title in his final elite years and with Dallas never really in contention to land Howard, Paul, or any other fish big enough to warrant wasting a year or two of Dirk’s closing window. The three paths were there for Dallas, Boston, and Houston yet they all chose different ones and only time will tell which of the three is most successful. We should have our answer in as little as 1 year.

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